Saturday, January 1, 2011
The Douville Family Veneer Saw
During my first year at school, I was joined by two other marquetry workers who, like myself, were invited by Pierre to study for a "stage" of work. One of these workers was Danish and the other was Spanish. It was an interesting period for the three of us, starting with the language issues. Fortunately, the Danish spoke English and understood enough French to explain to me what was said. Unfortunately, the Spanish spoke French, but with such a strange accent that I was more confused than ever.
One day Pierre announced to the three of us that we were invited to visit a workshop just outside Paris which had been in business since around 1800. I had no idea why this was such a special opportunity, except that it was a historic atelier. From the comments of the other students I began to realize this was the chance of a lifetime, and something which not everyone was given the chance to experience.
The workshop was that of the Douville family, who were responsible for creating the first mechanical saw for veneer around 1805. The saw was still in place, and the two elderly brothers who lived there were the 5th generation of the family. They were still in business, sawing veneer, and rarely opened their doors for visitors.
Before we went, Pierre related a story to us which helped us to appreciate what to expect. He said that there was a museum conservator from a major American museum who had visited the workshop previously. During the visit this curator asked if he could use the restroom. "Is it a petite affair or a grand affair?" inquired one of the Douville brothers. "A petite affair," replied the conservator, properly dressed in a nice suit. "There's the wall," was the answer.
When we arrived it looked like any other home on the street, surrounded by the famous wall. We were greeted by two men, both in their 80's and unmarried. They excitedly showed us the car which had sat in the garage since the 1920's and was in perfect condition. We went to lunch and they drank several bottles of wine. It was a very interesting conversation, which became more interesting after lunch.
My first impression of the workshop, which was in a building in the back yard, was that it was just a large building full of wood and tools. The wood frame saw stood in the center of the room and around the walls were cabinets with piles of wood, veneer and tools scattered everywhere. The most amazing thing was that the entire room was full of a dark, heavy sawdust that was at least 3 feet deep over every square inch, except the narrow paths where people walked. The sawdust was mahogany, rosewood, tulip, kingwood, and I can only imagine what other woods, and it actually covered the drawers up to the top surface of the cabinets. The walkways, or paths if you can call them that, were narrow clear trails which were only about a foot wide.
"Have you ever lost anything?" I asked, incredulously. "Only once," one replied, "Remember when dad thought he had lost that diamond ring?" The other answered immediately, "But then he found it years later." They both agreed that nothing was ever lost in the mess, it was just not readily available at that moment. Surely it will turn up later...
I was not allowed to take any photographs during this field trip, which is unfortunate. Within the next 5 years the shop would be sold and closed. Patrick George purchased most of the veneer and the original saw was taken apart and moved to his veneer store in Bagnolet. Patrick George operates two veneer saws, which were made later in the 19th century. I include a photo of one of these tools with this post. The other photo is a tool collector in the South of France who owns a similar saw.
I had originally posted a story about this special type of veneer saw on July 26, 2010. To my knowledge, there is a German shop and a shop in Belgium, in addition to Patrick George and the person in the South of France, which is the total list of these saws currently operating in the world.
I now realize how important is was to visit the original tool and talk with the original family. At no time did I ask to use the bathroom.